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EMPIRE ESSAY: Some Like It Hot Review

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Chicago, 1929: broke jazz musicians Joe (flee mobsters intent on silencing them. They cross-dress their way onto an all-female Jazz band gig in Florida but both are hot for band singer Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Monroe), a wistful chanteuse with a weakness for sax players and bourbon...

★★★★★

This legendary comedy, which fizzes from start to finish with great situations, wisecracking banter, breakneck pace, vulgarity, wit and sensational performances, is hysterically funny every time, no matter how many times, you see it. It mixes roaring 20s crime picture elements, of bootleggers, Tommy guns and chorus girls doing the Charleston, with the screwball staples of false identities, naughty repartee and madcap pursuits.

The 50s' top sex goddess at her most enchanting, Monroe's forlorn-funny turn, maddening though it was for her co-stars and director to capture (83 takes just for her to say "Where's that bourbon?" with her back to the camera) is mythic. Dishy Curtis' off-screen self-consciousness in drag gives him an aloof control that is in superb contrast to uninhibited Lemmon, whose expressiveness is priceless. Clever set-ups sustain one gag , after another (note the clues tossed off about the band manager's missing belongings before "Josephine" uses them to transform into his Gary Grant impersonation "Shell Oil Jr." to seduce Sugar, or the comic tension built up before he realises he's still got his earrings on when he races to their rendezvous) and the parade of pay-offs are sublime.

Some Like It Hot was produced and directed by Billy Wilder and it was his second screenwriting collaboration with I.A.L Diamond. Wilder was inspired by a German film called Fanfaren Der Liebe (1951), in which two unemployed musicians join an all-girl band, take a train journey and go in for some quick-change romancing with the band's singer. All similarity ends there. Wilder didn't want his two heroes camp; they had to be heatedly heterosexual so that their escapade aboard the train, surrounded by tempting totty, was excruciating. Therefore they had to have a desperately good reason to masquerade as women. Running for their lives from ruthless killers — who they've seen slaughter seven people — provided ample motivation. While the gangsters' strand has its own good jokes — "I was at Rigoletto," alibis Spats. "What's his last name? Where's he live?" demands the G-man — it's effectively played straight.

Lifelong tough guy George Raft's not sending himself up gives a delicious note of menace, as does Wilder's neat noir touch of shooting Raft's key entrances from the dandy footwear upward. The famous last line was written the night before shooting finished, by Diamond, who insisted over Wilder's doubt that it was funny because it's so unexpected — the last reaction the audience expects to Jerry's big revelation "I'm a MAN!". Osgood shrugs philosophically, "Well, nobody's perfect."

The other most fondly recalled moment is Daphne's engagement announcement. Lemmon, shaking his maracas in absurd ecstasy, is a masterpiece of comic timing, Wilder presciently insisting on joyous fits of gourd rattling to leave space for audience laughter between lines. He also overrode objections to filming in black and white, not only to enhance the period setting but, shrewdly, to mute the men's make-up. Their transformation is startlingly amusing, but imagined in Technicolor it would be way too grotesque.

Bizarrely, the very first preview audience to see the finished Some Like It Hot reacted catastrophically badly. In Pacific Palisades, 1200 people who had paid to see Suddenly Last Summer sat in stony silence, apparently proving industry mavens like L David O. Selznick's dire predictions to Wilder about mixing murder, romantic comedy and cross-dressing: "It will be a disaster". The lone voice heard guffawing belonged to comedian Steve Allen, who could only theorise later that his fellow punters must have been horribly depressed by the Tennessee Williams drama. The second preview, in Westwood, drew the college crowd from nearby UCLA and was a spectacularly different story, one repeated happily ever after. "They screamed," remembered Jack Lemmon. "They really went cuckoo." Audiences are still howling at a laugh riot that broke several fundamental rules of film comedy (the story springs from a grisly mass murder, the script was only half-written when shooting commenced, and the picture runs two hours, to cite three big no-nos), but went on to be enshrined by the American Film Institute as the Best Comedy Of All Time.

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The best comedy of all time. Period.